Poking my head in here since it looks like Goodreads has approved my giveaway — must have missed the email!
On Halloween entries will close, so get it while it’s hot! Three copies up for grabs.
More news… soon. 🙂 The game is afoot! Also, in Andovar news, this past week I received the countersigned contract for Shield of Sea and Space, which means: IT’S A TRILOGY!!!Lance of Earth and Sky comes out April 2012, and I turn in Shield in June.
But I know you’re really here for giveaway details. Let’s see if this works!
It’s been awhile since I last wrote for the Escapist, so I’m glad it appears I haven’t forgotten how to do it. “1988: the Golden Age of Game Piracy”, went live today. Many thanks to Paul Reiche for providing insights; in addition to his actual quotes, his perspective pivoted the article away from a first draft that had a rather different tone.
I had intended to post about the article with some “bonus features” in the form of a section that was ultimately removed (rightfully) for being too academic. Maybe I’ll post that another time, since I’d really like to know whether I was properly applying some economic theory.
As you might gather, Russ is moving on from the magazine, and while I’ve worked with a great number of wonderful folk in the last five years, I don’t think any of them would disagree that Russ’s departure in particular marks the end of an era.
My first article for the Escapist back in 2006 was a rather impetuous call to arms for the modern game industry, when the E was quite a different place. It had almost none of its current features and was instead “purely” focused on what would become its “feature” articles; there was a beautiful graphic cover and full spread art for each feature. Even then, in the magazine’s youth, I thought it was a tremendous honor to write for them, and over the years I do believe they remained the best and most thoughtful source of game journalism in the US. They aimed to set a standard of excellence, and Russ was a big part of that success.
Joe Blancato and Jon Martin (both also by now departed) made my introduction to the magazine, but Russ was the consistent editorial steady hand on the wheel throughout — even, interestingly, when he’d moved on to fresher pastures to grow the magazine’s new video content. Where many game magazines have a very well-intentioned but limited tunnel vision view of the industry and the market, Russ had a worldliness that gave the magazine breadth and, I think, greater relevance. He published some tremendous stuff, and as the magazine grew and changed — even when it transitioned away from some of the thoughtfulness and cultural forward-thinking that had first earned it my loyalty as a reader and a writer — I always respected his ability to ride the leading edge of a wave that made new careers even as it destroyed many others.
So, as Leah would say, tip your hat, folks; the times they are a-changin’. There is little doubt that the Escapist will remain a powerhouse in game media for many years to come, and even less doubt that Russ will go on to even greater adventures. But among other things, Inside Job, the quality of life column I wrote from 2007-2008, wouldn’t have existed without him, nor, I’m sure, would many of my feature articles. I am a better writer as a result, and I will always think back on the production of each — even when edits and deadlines plus a “real” job resulted in all-nighter catatonia — with great fondness.
Coming to you a bit late this week — I kept picking this up late at night, then holding onto it for hours when folks are more likely to actually be awake. 😉 Hope that you all have had a good week, and hope that all of you on the east coast are staying safe.
This week’s Creature of the Week is one of the most widely known pet birds in the western world — but some quick announcements first!
In many respects, Hoffman’s balance between adventure, manipulated cliche, and character make for a compelling novel that is a lot of fun to read. Personally, I am not an adventure fantasy fan, and I have a very short leash for the trappings of the fantasy genre. But Sword of Fire and Sea navigated those trappings in a way that allowed me to get lost in the excitement.
Finally, Jon Sprunk has some kind words for Sword, available on Amazon or GoodReads:
Erin Hoffman’s debut shows a remarkable deftness in storytelling and beautiful language. Some of her descriptions are so good they actually made me stop and read them again just to appreciate the lilt of the prose. This is an adventure story with heart.
If you enjoyed Sword of Fire and Sea, you might also enjoy Jon’s Shadow’s Son, assassin-focused fantasy with a rich world and characters I liked and connected with immediately. (And really, who isn’t down with the stabby-stabby? Jerks, that’s who.) Amazon seems to like to pair our books together.
Now back to the budgie!
Chances are you already know what a budgie (formally “budgerigar”) is, even if you call it a “parakeet” — but there’s also quite a lot you might not know about them. They’re colony breeders, and remarkably tough for such little birds — high survival attributes that also made them very adaptable to captivity. Their small size and relative ease of care also make them very common pets. Perhaps because they are so common — and inexpensive — their intelligence is not widely recognized, even though they’re among the smartest birds in the world.
Larger African Grey Parrots (like Vasya) and performing Amazons are well known for their intelligence and ability to mimic — but to this day, the bird with the largest human vocabulary in the world (an amazing 1,728 words documented by the Guinness World Records) was a budgie named Puck. By comparison, the famous Alex the African Grey — who at the time of his death was learning to read and understood the concept of zero, among other feats — had a vocabulary of only about a hundred words.
The use of the budgie’s remarkable mimicking ability in the wild has also been studied with regard to communication in a budgie flock. Budgies in the wild live in gigantic colonies of up to thousands of birds. Considering each bird’s amazing ability to communicate and express a huge variety of sounds, the patterns of sound communication through a budgie flock can be fascinating. Studies have been done on budgie flocks where scientists isolate a handful of birds, teach them a unique sound pattern, then release them back into the flock. The instructed sound pattern will be mimicked throughout the flock, passing through it like a wildfire — for a certain time. The birds teach the sound to each other, but then one bird will modify the sound and pass along the modified version — kind of like a game of “Telephone” — and the sound mutates it, turning it into something else, and the old version dies out entirely. These morphing patterns of communication and sound have been compared to human slang, or could be compared to any sort of memetic communication (lolcat, anyone?). Not only can budgies rapidly learn sound patterns and teach them to other birds, they make up their own language tokens and spread those as well.
So, in addition to having some of the most amazing eyes in the animal kingdom (almost all birds are tetrachromatic in addition to seeing ultraviolet and having amazing motion perception), budgies in particular have amazing ears, and hear at a rate of approximately 10x faster than humans — which is why their warbles sound so garbled to us! Slow that sound down and you experience it more like a budgie, the Micromachine Man of the bird world. Budgies also have a superhuman ability to recover from deafness if the cilia in their ears are damaged (in a human, such loss is permanent).
Birdsong in particular has been studied by several genera of scientists for centuries, both for its communication insight and for sound processing. Studies have shown that not only can small “twittering” birds hear at radically different rates than we can, their brains enable them to sift through types of sound much more efficiently than ours, enabling them to hear each other and communicate across long distances even in noisy environments. Think about that the next time you consider calling someone “bird-brained”!
While its ubiquity in homes all over the world makes it easy to underestimate, the budgie is an amazing creature, worthy of consideration and care. Sometimes the most amazing features of nature are right where you least expect them!
This week’s creature comes a little later in the evening than usual, but it’s still Friday! Hope you all are having a good one.
Third place on the World of Andovar voting page was “Something from the Sea”, so here this week we have the immortal jellyfish!
Usually when a creature has an evocative name like “immortal” it isn’t intended literally — not so in the case of the biological-rules-defying immortal jelly! These critters are thought to be literally immortal, cycling their life phases from mature back to youthful infinitely.
All jellyfish belong to the Cnidaria phylum and have at least two life phases: mobile swimming medusae (which we recognize as the iconic jellyfish) and stationary polyps. The jellyfish life cycle typically starts as a little cyst ejected from a mature swimming jellyfish that latches onto the sea floor, grows into a polyp, possibly multiplies, and then the polyp breaks up into multiple layers, each of which becomes a mature medusa.
Once the adult medusa has lived out its life and spat out some eggs (or sperm) to create the next generation, it usually winds down — reproducing a few times and then dying. Some medusae live only hours. The bizarre and amazing immortal jellyfish, though, does something different: once it has cruised around as a medusa for awhile, it skips that whole death thing and turns back into a polyp.
So here we have one of the strangest things in the sea, a single species of jellyfish that has not only figured out how to defy death, but may be the biological equivalent of grey goo. Sorry nanotech — nature beat you to it! I have a feeling Philip K. Dick would have loved this creature.
We have had this 20% off Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon sitting around. I usually ignore them, but in this case we were looking for a better laundry bin solution (to give you some insight into the Exciting Life of the Writer-Game-Designer), so yesterday we got some brunch and headed off to the Pleasantville-mart that is BB&B. Only there were no adequate laundry bins to be found! Gasp! So, naturally, we had to buy an ice cream maker. They had this one on sale, and I had been taunted by Dansky’s sorbet posts FOR TOO LONG.
I don’t read appliance instructions (it’s a religious thing), so I had whipped up the base for some pineapple-lychee sorbet and poured it into the machine before I realized that the liquid-filled vessel for it has to be frozen before you can set about making sorbet. Sadness. So my delicious lychee-pineapple mixture (recipe below) went into the fridge and the ice cream tumbler went into the freezer and we went to bed.
Then, while Jay was making breakfast this morning, I dug it out, put it together, and about half an hour later there was pineapple-lychee sorbet.
And I have to say, it’s freaking amazing. As expected there is little replacement for taking very fresh ingredients and letting the cold machine have its way with them. I was a little worried that the lychee would get smothered by the pineapple, but it comes through very strong, with an explosive but amazingly light flavor that bears a striking resemblance to the most tasty thing you can imagine.
It was also really simple to make. I took:
Half a pineapple, diced (about 2 cups)
Half a bag of fresh lychee (about a dozen) — peeled of course
Half a cup of sugar
Half a cup of water
Sugar and water went onto the stove to make simple syrup while I prepared the fruit, which went into the blender. By the time I was done the simple syrup was also done and cooled, so it went in also. Puree the whole thing, then pour into the ice cream maker. I suggest you skip the part where I poured it in, realized the drum needed to be frozen, poured it out, cleaned everything, and froze the drum overnight. Then the machine does its work, and voila! Amazing summery deliciousness.
Welcome to Creature of the Week #6! First a public service announcement: Sword of Fire and Sea is live on Amazon Kindle! It’s been up for about a day and has popped onto a “top 100” list, so many of you have found it already, but this is a more persistent heads-up. 🙂 Two nice reviews have also come in, one from Scott Barnes at NewMyths.com, who calls SWORD “a swashbuckling fantasy adventure reminiscent of the golden age of high fantasy dominated by the likes of Terry Brooks and Tad Williams.” He also offers up an observation on fantasy politics:
Hoffman has created a fun world populated by gryphons, elemental witches, pirates, and goddesses. I greatly enjoyed the maritime setting, the salty air and cry of gulls never far from my imagination. Many high fantasies ignore commerce all together, as if the economies of their worlds ran on warfare alone and food grew in people’s bellies. But Hoffman’s world is based on politics and trade and the correct assumption (very relevant in today’s political climate) that people in power have the most to lose from change and often will accept a worse fate for their countries in exchange for the status quo.
This week’s creature was also chosen by voting on the the World of Andovar page! It is, in a way, a hybrid of the two top vote-getters, being both “something from the sky” and “something from down below the earth”: the fabulous little burrowing owl. These guys are so cute that it’s hard to pick just a couple of photos of them, but I did my best.
Burrowing owls have attracted recent attention from conservationists as habitat destruction has driven them into endangered species status in Canada. They’re threatened in Mexico, and under observation in the western US, which comprises the rest of their range. According to Defenders of Wildlife, their wild population is estimated at less than 10,000 breeding pairs.
The burrowing owl isn’t the smallest owl in the world (that’d be the elf owl, but it’s pretty close! With length averaging between 6-10″, males and females being the same size (unusual in raptors). Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are not completely nocturnal, and hunt (insects and small rodents mostly) during the day. They strike prey with their feet, and makes its nest in holes dug out of the ground. Baby burrowing owl chicks can fly at six weeks of age, and make a rattlesnake-like hissing noise when threatened.
What, you didn’t catch the last fourteen creatures of the week? They were stealthy, ninja-like creatures, beneath the reckoning of the lugubrious internet.
…Okay, I was finishing Lance of Earth and Sky, in addition to work and blah blah blah blah, so there was a bit of a creature pileup. But it’s back, and better than ever! Thank you to those (surprisingly many of you) who emailed or messaged asking when the next one would be. <3
This week’s creature was chosen by the World of Andovar! You wanted it, you got it! The race was a close one, but “Something from Down Below the Earth” edged out “Something from the Sky” by two votes. So, this week, meet the mighty Olm!
As you can see, a photograph of the olm (Proteus anguinus), a blind cave-dwelling amphibian from southeastern Europe, could easily be mistaken for a sighting of Falcor, the dragon from the Never-Ending Story (the film anyway; if you haven’t read the book, you really should, it’s wonderful!). In Slovenia, when flash flooding from rains would fill the caves and wash helpless olms (also appropriately called “white salamanders”) to the surface, people thought that they were baby dragons.
Olms are troglobites: they live exclusively underground and have adapted to completely dark environments, in the olm’s case to the point of getting rid of eyes entirely. Most troglobites are spiders, fish, and insects; in addition to being unusual as an amphibian troglobite, the olm is an unusual amphibian in that it is exclusively aquatic. With its pink external gills and stubby almost useless legs (it has only ten toes on its entire body; six in front, four in back), it spends its entire life in underground pools (making it also a stygobite, a sub-class of troglobite that is aquatic).
The study of cave biology in western culture is relatively recent, but still fast-growing, and, like creatures that live in the deep sea, valuable in that it broadens our standards for the environmental conditions that can sustain life. The phenomenal pressure and coldness of the deep sea was for centuries thought to be empty and sterile, but chemosynthetic life and ecosystems thrive around hot vents in the earth’s crust. Similarly, one of the most recent expansions to our ‘standard’ for habitable environments comes from chemosynthetic cave life. In Romania, not far from the olm’s habitat, there is a cave called Peştera Movile (“Movile Cave”), discovered in 1986, containing life that has been separated from the rest of the earth for the last 5.5million years — an underground Galapagos! And because there was CO2 and hydrogen sulfide, but almost no oxygen, the life there — all 48 species of it — is chemosynthetic.
One of my favorite fictional explorations of this expanding-boundary expression of biology is Michael Swanwick’s “Slow Life”, which, because it was nominated for (and later won) the Hugo in 2002, you can read on Analog’s website (or in his superb collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow. Looking at the olm, ghostly subterranean dragon, it isn’t hard to imagine that life can be stranger than our wildest alien expectations.
This is a very quick post to call your attention to Thalnarra, who waits for you in the magical land of ebay! Thalnarra is one of Melody Pena’s Windstone griffins, hand-painted to look like your favorite gryphon fire priestess. In many ways Thalnarra is the centerpoint of Andovar as a world; I hear frequently from readers that she was their favorite, so it’s amazing to see her “in the feathers” here.
Melody did such an incredible job. If you’ve ever seen a Windstone in person you know that photos don’t do them justice, even when the photos are amazing (there are more in that album, and on ebay). I want to gush about this for thousands of words, but I also want you to actually read this and then click right over to the ebay auction and try your luck.
Honestly. If you had told me five years ago that Melody would be painting one of her amazing griffins to look like a character I’d invented, I would ask you to share whatever you were smoking.
Stay tuned next week for a post about the making of Thalnarra, and to congratulate her new owner. 🙂
For those of you kind and intrepid and incredible folk who have been interested in signed copies of Sword of Fire and Sea, here are some answers!
First, you can come to the next signing, which will be July 23, 2011 at Borderlands Books in San Francisco. If you can’t make it there, I’ll be at Westercon July 2-4, Dragon*Con September 2-5, and World Fantasy Con October 27-30. I may be adding a couple of more trips; when I have them finalized I’ll be updating this page with them.
Secondly, you can order signed copies anytime from Mysterious Galaxy! Mysterious Galaxy is a fantastic independent science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror bookstore in San Diego (my hometown!). They’ve been around since 1993 and have been keeping genre alive and building one of the best genre fiction communities in the country.
I have many memories of peeking into Mysterious Galaxy’s windows (there’s a Japanese restaurant in the same center that my family has been going to for years), so it was particularly awesome to “launch” Sword of Fire and Sea there officially. And despite it being my first signing, I don’t know how you could ask for better support: they advertised the heck out of the event, and Maryelizabeth provided terrific advice over facebook before I came down. Patrick and David were wonderful throughout, making sure everything ran smoothly and providing a convention’s worth of stimulating science fiction and fantasy conversation in just a couple of hours.
So there are your answers! Go forth and buy books from a terrific San Diego institution! There are more photos from the signing on the Andovar facebook page (but you’re already a member there, right?), and on Flickr.
Kiba, fresh in her summer coat, says: shop from sources who put good things into the world!
Looking for answers? Dianetics, The Secret, The Seven Deadly Foibles of Unrepentant Sociopaths? The revelations that you seek are in Ecco the Dolphin.
Produced by Ed Annunziata and developed by the international Novotrade International team (later Appaloosa Interactive), the first Ecco the Dolphin came out early in the age of Sega Genesis. Dolphins and whales in general were high on the mainstream consciousness through the 70s and 80s, with Songs of the Humpback Whale debuting in 1970, the first human-recorded sounds of whale communication, and going on to sell a multiplatinum thirty million copies in the following decades. The record burned through our hominid brains, a universal call for the sacred mysteries of nature, and it’s a short hop from there to the illustrative work of Robert Wyland, whose depictions linking whales and far galaxies look like concept art for Ecco.
What makes Ecco really stand out, though, is that as a game it was so phenomenally well crafted. And, like most exceptionally well made video games, it contains the secrets of the universe.
I unpacked the Sega Genesis (not my family’s original — a used system picked up on ebay a couple of years ago) for a little book launch party this past weekend, and as inevitably happens when I’m left alone with a Genesis, when the party was over I fired up Ecco II: The Tides of Time.
I’ve played this game many times (though admittedly rarely all the way through). This time around I was struck by two things: 1) the flow and progression of this game is actually completely brilliant; 2) how in the world did they get away with shipping a game that was so incredibly hard?
Realization #2 is perhaps what Tides of Time in particular is so well-known for, which is unfortunate. The game is hard. But the best games are. The very best games are the ones that are brutally hard but don’t allow you to put them down. This is a delicate, stunning balance, an invisibly momentous achievement — the challenge pushes you to your absolute limit, but with every play you feel yourself getting just a little bit closer. You never, at any point, truly feel that you can’t win. And riding that knife-edge of balance and challenge is wickedly difficult. How the team managed it in the wild west of this still relatively early console development I have no idea, but there is something magical about this period in game history, something that produced genius. Although Ecco II is my go-to has-everything game, if you put a gun to my head I’d still have a hard time telling you whether it, Phantasy Star IV, or Sid Meier’s Pirates! Gold should be declared king of the Sega Genesis.
But in spite of all that, I couldn’t help but marvel at how really rather absurdly difficult even the first few levels of Ecco II are. I cruised through the first two, marveling again at the challenge and simplicity of the vibrating-crystal puzzle in the third level — and by the time I hit my first failed run at “Sky Tides”, I was developing some serious respect for my twelve-year-old self for having the tenacity to beat the game. I was also astonished that I’d done it. I went up against the “Tube of Medusa” a round dozen times before I stopped, in astonishment, and wondered how in the hell anyone managed to push through these levels.
That was when I googled “Tube of Medusa” and found these brilliant play-through videos. I watched the end of the game first, partly because I didn’t know that’s what it was (it was the most popular video — doubtless for the thousands of people who played but never finished the game). And then I went back and watched from the beginning, cackling to myself with glee when he thought the crystals puzzle was difficult. And when he thought “Skyway” was a pain. And when he died over and over again for the next entire video against “Sky Tides”. And when he went up against the Medusa, died, and found himself rolled back to “Skyway” and completely lost his shit. If you’ve ever played any of the Ecco games you owe it to yourself to watch these videos.
The videos themselves are a tight illustration of this frustration-challenge-triumph progression that is so well done in the Ecco games (the first two anyway — I loved the story of Defender of the Future, but just never quite bought the 3D interpretation of Ecco). The games drive you absolutely mad — but you keep playing, not out of some deeply planted masochistic impulse, but because the game is persistently telling you: just a little longer. Just try one more time.
And this gets to the heart of one of the most powerful lessons that games as a whole teach.
Games, especially physics simulators like Ecco, are encapsulated constructions of our perception of the nature of reality. We simulate the rules of the universe in small packages in an attempt to understand how it works, how we work. The artistic insight and understanding achieved through games is therefore an insight that emerges from the process of experiencing the simulation — a core truth about our experience of life itself.
There was no doubt in my mind that as a kid I absorbed deep and powerful things from Ecco. The sheer beauty of the game was an insight all on its own — the way its music and physics feel and graphics lull you into this trance-like flow state. And this beauty and flow is emphasized again through the game’s mechanics, which require such a precision of movement and reflex that it cannot be conscious. In playing the most difficult parts of Ecco, you will bang your head again and again if you are distracted, or too self-conscious. You succeed when you let go, when you let reflex take over, when you are absorbed in the game.
Ecco II could not be what it is without its incredible difficulty. And it makes me wilt a little inside to think that games like this would have an awfully hard time being made and published in today’s market. Ecco’s difficulty did repel many gamers, who weren’t sufficiently hooked through the opening to rise to the challenges it offered. (To this day, if you google Ecco what you’ll find are a lot of gamers complaining about how hard the game was, which they translate to “it sucks” — and then wonder today why games are so much easier than they used to be [and then complain about that].) But another point of interest for me is that I often find that some of the most brilliant, creative, and inspiring young women I know today loved Ecco as a kid. It spoke to something in all of us, something so powerful that it made us beat a game that to this day is infamous in the history of stupidly hard games.
So here, in short, are critical lessons that Ecco teaches:
1) Fail. Fail a lot. Then win. Every success book will tell you this, but Ecco actually shows it to you. The problem with the books is that their message often reaches us as patently false. Sure, the people who “win” at various things in life almost always have a long string of failed attempts behind them. But so do the people who continually fail. The critical variation here is: fail a lot, but get just a little bit better every time. That is how you win. And that just a little bit better is the sweet taste of success that gives us courage in
the face of failure.
2) Paying too much attention throws you off your game. You need to let go and release your intuitive mind. First you strategize, but when you perform, you let go. An astonishing amount of fail comes from over thinking.
3) Explore. Sometimes the thing that you’re looking for is tucked away in a corner that you’ll only find if you’re thorough and meticulous.
4) Know your tools. Think ahead. If you take the time to map out your surroundings and develop a plan, you drastically up your odds.
5) Go slow. If you rush into the unknown you will almost always die. Going slow and keeping control — cultivating disciplined patience — gets you where you want to go faster than rushing, even though this is unintuitive.
6) Analyze your failure. You can sometimes brute force your way through a challenge by sheer luck, but if you stop, take a breath, and think, you can usually observe something about the way your environment is behaving in reaction to your attempt that will be the key to your success. There is always a key. There is always a secret. And the faster you acknowledge and alter your mistakes, the faster you succeed.
7) Master your emotions. The thing that makes most challenges seem unwinnable is your own reaction to the challenge. Adrenaline is only productive in certain situations. Most of the time it just gets in your way. Breathe.
These seem like simple things when they’re listed and told, which is the nature of lessons. You can rarely effectively absorb them from a list or a collection of words. But a game allows you to experience the lesson, to perform the metaphor, and so many of our intrinsic learning systems kick in as a result that the realizations are hundreds of times more powerful.
If you listen through those youtube videos, you can hear Hidenozuke going through this process, which is fascinating and fun.
I do wish he’d do a run-through of the first game. Though any reasonable physician, I suppose, might not allow it.